Rural communities in Oregon and elsewhere face an extraordinarily complex set of challenges. As Oregon's Land Grant University, Oregon State University is uniquely positioned to help rural communities understand and respond to these challenges. By investing strategically in the Sustainable Rural Communities Initiative, OSU is creating a unique center of excellence at OSU with a coordinated teaching, research and outreach program focused on rural community sustainability. In so doing, OSU is seeking to build capacity in rural communities to achieve economic and environmental sustainability and social and cultural well-being, and to support state government in its new efforts to address the policy challenges in rural areas.

The special issues and serious problems facing rural people and places have generally received very little attention from policy makers. In Oregon, however, Governor Kulongoski-with the support of many other governmental and community leaders-has created a new Office of Rural Policy to address the challenges faced in rural areas. Yet little is known about what works and what doesn't in improving the economic and social conditions in rural places, about how policy can strengthen the economic and social fabric in rural communities and about how rural communities themselves can develop strategies for overcoming the disadvantages that come with lack of scale and geographic isolation.

The OSU Sustainable Rural Communities (SRC) Initiative

OSU is creating a statewide interdisciplinary program involving faculty from five colleges (Liberal Arts, Science, Health and Human Sciences, Agricultural Sciences, and Forestry) and the Extension Service (and new external university, government, and nonprofit partners) to develop new educational opportunities, applied and basic research, and outreach addressing the needs and challenges of rural Oregon communities. The Sustainable Rural Communities Initiative will involve place-based education, research and outreach activities, working directly with communities and taking OSU expertise directly to targeted rural Oregon communities.

The overall goal of the Sustainable Rural Communities Initiative is to improve environmental, economic, social and cultural well-being in Oregon's rural communities by establishing the premier program for rural community sustainability in the Land Grant University system. This initiative would achieve this goal by pursuing four objectives:

  • prepare a new generation of community leaders, professionals, and scholars with capacity to take on the kinds of complex, often messy situations that emerge as rural communities seek economic and social viability,
  • generate new knowledge about the challenges facing rural communities and what policies work best in rural places for achieving sustainability,
  • engage rural communities in learning about their strengths and opportunities and in developing place-specific strategies to support long-term development
  • build broader public understanding about the contributions of, and constraints faced by, rural communities and about the impacts of federal and state policy on rural communities.

The SRC Initiative will support three major activities:
(1) Place-based Research/Teaching/ Outreach Community Partnerships,
(2) New academic programs: a rural concentration in the Masters of Public Policy degree and three options for Sustainable Rural Communities Certificates,
(3) New multidisciplinary research projects. The Initiative will also develop externally-funded international experiences and exchanges; and new teaching, research and outreach collaborations with faculty at other Oregon University System institutions.

Place-based Research/Teaching/Outreach Community Partnerships

Two types of community partnerships are planned:
(1) Long-term collaborations in a small number of communities that seek intensive collaboration with Oregon State University on-campus and field faculty, and
(2) shorter term outreach projects providing two kinds of support for local community development efforts: (a) information about the local economy and the larger economic and policy context and (b) information about effective strategies for achieving various development objectives. These projects could include faculty at Eastern Oregon University, both those affiliated with the OSU Agriculture Program and with the new Oregon Rural Solutions Center. At least one of these partnerships at any given time will be with communities with significant underrepresented populations.

New academic programs

OSU will create a world-class curriculum in Rural Studies and Policy that will train the next generation of leaders to develop a base for ongoing development of sustainable rural communities in Oregon and elsewhere. Several new programs will be available to students, depending on their disciplinary emphasis:
(1) a rural policy track for OSU's new Master of Public Policy;
(2) an interdisciplinary graduate certificate (both on-campus and Ecampus versions) in Sustainable Rural Studies;
(3) an interdisciplinary undergraduate certificate (both on-campus and Ecampus versions) in Sustainable Rural Studies; and
(4) a Summer Institute for rural professionals, which will offer an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Rural Studies.

There is an internship required for all MPP students, and we would expect students pursuing this concentration to fulfill their internship requirement by participating in one of the three place-based research sites, or with a rural NGO or government agency.

New multidisciplinary research projects

New multidisciplinary research projects will focus on issues critical to economic and social well-being of rural people, such as employment, health care access and costs, land use, education, food insecurity, poverty, and migration. Multidisciplinary research in the priority focus areas will be stimulated by (1) seed funding for the writing of multi-disciplinary proposals for research on rural community issues that are important to Oregon; and (2) graduate research fellowships offered to support research on rural community issues in different disciplines. Two of the fellowships each year will be used to support students in the emerging graduate programs in the College of Liberal Arts (the multi-disciplinary MPP and the PhD in Applied Anthropology).

Synergies and cross-fertilization of the multiple research projects will be supported by regularly scheduled SRC research seminars at which faculty and graduate fellows present preliminary results of their research, and by an annual SRC Research Symposium that brings a nationally prominent rural community scholar to OSU for a major address.